Living In The Material World

January 2, 2010 at 9:32 PM | Posted in Cultural Evolution | Leave a comment
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Is greed good?  It depends upon who one asks I suppose, but if you a happen to live among a band of foragers, as almost all humans did only a few millennia ago, being greedy, or more accurately hoarding, would likely get you killed.  At the very least, you’d be shunned or perhaps banished.

So what happened?

A few things to consider before we launch into pure speculation.  First, human beings appear to be wired for cooperation.  Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, has shown that preverbal children have a natural tendency to cooperate and help others.  On the other hand, chimpanzees of a similar age typically act to maximize their own personal gain.  Second, human beings often cooperate with strangers even when they receive no direct benefit and are unlikely to encounter the stranger again.  Neither kin selection nor reciprocity can explain this type of behavior.  Even group selection and game theory models have a difficult time accounting for this type of behavior since both require competition between groups for altruistic behavior to emerge.  Third, human beings, at least males, typically harbor both the desire to dominate others and possibly an even greater craving for personal autonomy.

In Hierarchy In The Forest, Christopher Boehm argues that egalitarian human societies are actually maintained through a special type of hierarchy in which lower ranking males avoid subjugation by forming coalitions that forcefully preempt aggressive alpha-males from dominating the group, through whatever means is necessary, including banishing or killing overly aggressive males.  Boehm refers to this inverted type of dominance as anti-hierarchical egalitarianism.

Boehm starts from the premise that humans are innately disposed to form social dominance hierarchies similar to those of the African great apes, but that primeval foragers were largely able to neutralize these tendencies — as do present-day foraging bands.  Boehm believes, and has collected a substantial amount of data supporting his view, that people in egalitarian societies are driven by a passionate desire for personal autonomy.    Through the formation of coalitions, foraging bands can preemptively curb the tendencies of individuals who signs of wanting to dominate the band.  Potential subordinates respond to the fear that aggressive males may attempt to dominate the group through the formation of very broad political coalitions that implement a collective dominance.

A number of factors are important in maintaining this type of egalitarian social organization.   However, although a foraging lifestyle, nomadism, and the absence of food storage are all important in this regard, none by itself guarantees an egalitarian group orientation, nor does a lack of any one of these characteristics necessarily lead to the establishment of a hierarchical society.  For instance, although keeping domestic animals allows a means by which food can be stored, some pastoral nomads who maintain domesticated animals are egalitarian while others are hierarchical.  Even some sedentary communities that establish a means by which to store food will not necessarily abandon an egalitarian way of life.

However, it is clear that once a society’s  population grows beyond a certain threshold, it becomes extremely difficult, to say the least, to establish coalitions large enough to prevent the subordination of most members of a social group.  Based on anthropological and sociological studies, it seems likely that the population threshold at which an anti-hierarchical egalitarian orientation becomes unsustainable is approximately 150.  Of course, this doesn’t mean that counterbalances cannot emerge in more or less despotic societies.  For instance, the power of European monarchies was greatly diminished, and ultimately ended, by collaborative efforts involving a variety of differing political interests that included merchants and landowners, intellectual elites, and powerful religious establishments.  More recently, powerful corporate interests have been challenged, somewhat less successfully, by unions and environmentalists.  The greatest weakness in these collaborative efforts is the fact that the various interests involved don’t necessarily have the same political aims: they aren’t true coalitions.  Moreover, although the dominant members of modern societies are quasi-plutocrats, in toto they form a somewhat fluid, relatively broad ruling class that makes the dubious promise that anyone who works hard enough can join in.  In addition, Boehm has argued that the ability of the plutocrats to rule with an iron fist has been subverted in many countries by the establishment of representative democracies.  Based on the fact that the distribution of wealth in Western representative democracies hardly differs from the distributions found in authoritarian societies suggests that Boehm is overly optimistic.  In modern societies, cultural mythos and ethos seem to have been established by corporate owned media, and to a lesser degree, by conservative religious organizations.  These establishment voices mock any attempt to create more equal societies based on egalitarian principles as being driven by nothing more than class envy.  for the most part, they have been very successful in establishing this empty conjecture as unassailable truth.  The American Dream is not egalitarian equality; the American Dream is to stiff to become part of the establishment, to surpass one’s neighbor, at least as measured by material gain.  In this sense, envy has indeed become the norm.  Several studies have shown that Americans seem to measure their own happiness based on how well off they are relative to their neighbors and friends, regardless of how they measure up based on non-materialistic measures of worthiness.  In modern societies, idealistic virtues have taken a back seat to material interests; celebrity is celebrated for its own sake, social relations are depersonalized, and human awareness is riddled with disenchantment.

Are we better off?  Our ability to provide an over-abundance of food to a large majority of the human population and to protect ourselves from many deadly diseases argues yes (with the caveats that there are probably more starving people in the world today than there were two thousand years ago; and that many of the diseases we have overcome only became problematic when human beings began maintaining domesticated animals in sedentary communities).  On the other hand, modern societies are plagued by a wide variety of addictions and mental health disorders.  These disabilities are rare or non-existent in foraging nomadic bands.

I suppose the answer depends on how we measure happiness.


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